Views of Japan

Article main image

At a recent visit to SFMOMA with students, I was able to see in person a set of prints by Japanese photographers from the museum’s collection that curator Adam Ryan had pulled. The business of prints, he noted (and I’m paraphrasing here) was tricky. Especially older ones often had been prepared for print publications, causing some photographers to give their dates as the ones when they appeared in print (in a magazine or book), but not when they had been produced in the darkroom. What is more, some of the prints had been handled in a variety of ways that would give a lot of photo professionals shivers, causing them to be “non-mint,” or however else the business of selling photographs describes such objects.

At that moment (and even later), I couldn’t have cared less if those prints by the likes of Daido Moriyama or Shomei Tomatsu looked maybe just a tiny bit creased: I had seen them so many times in reproduction that to be in the presence of actual prints was nothing short of a spectacular moment. However, later on I wondered whether I hadn’t been misguided approaching the prints that way, given so much emphasis had been placed by their makers on the printed (mass-reproduced) picture itself, copies of which (mostly later and not period ones) I have in my possession in the form of books.

Especially in this day and age, this problem appears to have become even more relevant, without there being an obvious answer I think: for any photograph and ignoring the way this topic has historically — in the West — been approached, why would one realization be preferable to all the others? I approached that rabbit hole as part of a piece I wrote for a German photo biennial, and it certainly is something to come back to again later.

Here, I will merely note that I had seen many of the photographs in Views of Japan, albeit not in this particular form, and by that I mean Steidl’s way of printing pictures, which packs quite the punch, with layers and layers of ink on the pages. Those prints at SFMOMA didn’t look this way — after all, how could they, given that they were produced in a very different way, as silver-gelatin prints?

None of my comments about the book should be seen as a criticism. Prints can — and often do — look very different than what is reproduced in books; it’s important to keep this in mind. What is on view in this particular book is very visceral on a visual level. But it also is a particular interpretation of the material at hand that makes everything look like a latter-day digital Daido Moriyama book (or a contemporary Provoke-era reprint), leveling the b/w images in ways that make the differences clearly visible in the SFMOMA prints for the most part disappear.

In the West, Japanese photography is often equated with a Provoke-style aesthetic (which is exactly what this Steidl printing is getting at), with some crazy sex pictures (Araki) thrown in for good measure. However, that is a very unfortunate simplification that very clearly needs to be corrected (especially also in light of pretty much all of the well-known and widely exhibited artists being male). Seen that way, Views of Japan comes as a very welcome corrective. The pictures in the book form a selected part of the collection of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck who have been collecting photographs by Japanese artists for a long time and who — good for them! — did not stop at assembling those few well-known suspects.

Collectors play a powerful and mostly invisible role in the world of art photography. If you were to approach what’s on view at most of the world’s galleries, especially the ones in the West’s photography centers, as showing the best of photography, that idea would be true only to some extent. Obviously, it’s highly debatable what constitutes the best anyway. I could make my case for this or that, and then someone else might agree or disagree. That aside, though, galleries are businesses, and like all businesses, they hope they remain in business. How do you do that as a gallerist? You show work that will sell. It sounds so crass when I write it like that, doesn’t it? And it is crass, despite the fact that many gallerists work closely with the photographers they represent, to help them grow and/or generate often much needed income, while keeping the desires of their collector base in mind. Work that won’t sell will have a hard time finding a space in the world of commercial galleries. Given so much focus is currently still placed on the importance of such galleries, it’s important to keep this in mind.

Most collectors have a particular focus. In a sense, this makes such collections interesting, provided the focus is, well, interesting. As I mentioned, in the case of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, that focus is Japanese photography. There is a longer narration in Views of Japan that outlines some of the collectors’ thinking, along with assorted, let’s say, colourful anecdotes about various artists and their interactions. Those anecdotes aside, the book isn’t simply a display of this particular collection. It also outlines a lot of the history, which here and there places a focus on artists that aren’t very well known. A reader/viewer thus not only learns why some artists might be interesting for the collectors, but also where they are placed in their larger historical context.

In addition, while the full-bleed layout of the book again nods at Provoke, the photographs are shown without captions, often using thought-provoking juxtapositions (there is an index at the end of the book, which allows the viewer to identify photographs). So if you approach the book only knowing the usual suspects, you’ll be in for a very pleasant surprise, as a much deeper view of the very varied and deeply layered history of Japanese photography is being revealed. This is most welcome, in particular since many of the artists who are a lot less well known in the West (think Issei Suda, Miyako Ishiuchi, Toshiko Okanoue, or Ei-Q) allow the viewer to get a much more nuanced picture (pardon the pun) of Japan.

We all can only gain from seeing such broader pictures: imagine American photography being mostly equated with William Klein’s early aesthetic, or imagine what it feels like for German photographers to have only the Düsseldorf school represent them. Such broad simplifications are bad for all parties involved: entire often very complex countries get reduced to almost cartoonish groups of people. Given the sheer breadth of photography practiced in pretty much every country I know, such an approach, however convenient it is, really does not do the medium any justice. But it also reduces the experience we can have with the world through pictures to a lot less than what it could be. Views of Japan does its part to reveal a much larger fraction of the beauty of photography made in Japan to a non-Japanese audience.


View of Japan; photographs by various artists; text by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz; 144 pages; Steidl; 2017

(not rated)